We finally come to a close in this re-read. The final chapter provides a perfect conclusion to the overall plot shape. After the very intense conflicts and resolutions in the previous chapter, we have a chance to breathe and relax and enjoy the continuing “magical” delights of Sara’s return to “princess” status. But the structure of the moral accounts includes one more balance item.
The return of Sara’s fortune, her return to a luxurious lifestyle, and the restoration of a benevolent father-figure can be seen as zeroing out all the trials and traumas she’s been through. But for her to continue to “deserve” her good fortune, under this model, she should continue to put good deeds out into the world (alternately: she should continue to have misfortunes, but that would be a different story). And Sara is no longer simply being an inherently kind and thoughtful person. She’s had experience of how sharply an undeserved misfortune can affect someone’s life, and how much it can mean to reach out and actively help people, even at a cost to one’s self. That cost no longer need be personal hardship. But Sara thinks back to the “dreadful day” and how much it meant to the beggar girl to have a sack full of hot buns literally dropped in her lap.
So Sara conceives of an ongoing charitable endeavor to help hungry children in a very direct way—a way that would have meant a great deal to her at the time (though it’s an open question whether she would have felt comfortable accepting it). She wants to arrange for the bakery owner to feed any hungry children that hang around her shop at Sara’s expense.
I confess that one of my first thoughts is for unintended consequences. Occasionally handing out bread to hungry children is an admirable thing, but what happens when word gets out that if you’re hungry you should go to this specific bakery for free bread? How will the regular customers (who may have rather unenlightened views on ragged children) react to the new clientele? Would the arrangement eventually result in the bakery shifting from being an independent self-supporting business to being a fully-subsidized bread line? How would its proprietor feel about that? Would she find the same satisfaction if she moved from independent businesswoman to being Sara's de facto employee? (I'm a writer. I can't help spinning off possible plot-threads and consequences.) But these questions are in that awkwardly practical realm that the story side-steps, as well as lying in a hypothetical future that it doesn't cover.
Sara—escorted by Mr. Carrisford—presents her proposed arrangement to the bakery owner, who recognizes her from their last encounter and rejoices in Sara’s good fortune. She mentions that she was aware of Sara giving away her buns to the beggar and how it inspired her to do her own bit of charity as she was able since then. But the frosting on the cake is the proof of how good deeds inspire continued good deeds and personal transformations. The bakery owner reveals that her conversation with the beggar girl led to sporadic exchanges of chores for food and eventually to regular employment. The girl, now christened Anne, has become a productive, upstanding member of the workforce thanks to the hand up. (As there has been no mention of the bakery owner having immediate family involved in the business, I’m free to visualize Anne eventually becoming almost an adopted daughter and taking over the business. Once more my writer-brain is spinning future scenarios out of control.)
* * *
In conclusion, what is my overall take on the book? Have I achieved my purpose in this re-read? My goal, as I attempted to describe it from the beginning, was to explain why I find this story a soothing comfort-read, despite the rather dated moral lessons, the regular cringe-inducing stereotyping along a wide variety of axes, and occasional gaping plot holes. It isn’t that I actually believe in the truth of “moral accounting”. Worthy people living virtuous lives get shat on by fate all the time and arrant villains achieve fame and fortune. (*cough* Trump *cough*) The value I see in such old-fashioned (to use one of Burnett’s favorite descriptors) moral structures is not in a belief that they reflect reality, but in the recognition that—like Sara’s example to those around her—they can inspire us to be our better selves. Just as Sara never really believes she is a princess, and just as her image of what it means to be a princess is a collection of unrealistic ideals that have little to do with the historic individuals she spins tales about, Sara's fictional example is a model--an unworldly idea--whose purpose is not to reflect reality but to create it. She inspires us to act as if our virtuous actions will be rewarded by fate, even when we know there’s no cause and effect.
Because the one part of Sara’s moral arc that is true, is that one person’s example can inspire (or shame) others to behave similarly. And seeing Sara as a flawed, struggling, three-dimensional human being (which isn’t necessarily typical for moralistic literature) who still holds to kind, virtuous, generous action, even when she has no expectation of it bringing her a return, is a timeless inspiration to my mind. One that overcomes the limitations of her creator’s vision and understanding.
Do you have a book that stuck with you over long years because it hit a similar chord with you? One that speaks to some essential inner truth that transcends simple entertainment?